For whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)
I was recently asked how I deal with that negative voice in my head telling me I can’t do something. I was asked the question because I am a woman in leadership. Our places in leadership are newer in the overall scheme of how our society is structured—there are a lot of glass ceilings only recently broken. Some of those ceiling-breaking moments feel nominal or performative, rather than representing real change. There are ceilings that remain resolutely shatter-proof. And there are still circles in our North American culture where it is acceptable to tell women that their place is in the home. Most of us have our stories of the subtle and not-so-subtle voices telling us that our responsibilities should be prioritized in directions other than pursuing goals and accolades or climbing any professional ladders. This question was asked of me in the context of pooling female wisdom in intentional ways to counteract these very real and ongoing barriers and to build one another up.
I resonated with the question—I know that negative voice well—I hear it every time I put shoe to pavement on a run. I hear it when I say ‘yes’ to positions of leadership, speaking engagements or any of the other things to which I give an eager ‘yes’ even though I’m pretty sure I don’t know what I’m doing. Imposters’ syndrome is my regular companion. I have to speak in front of large crowds of people, even though I find it terrifying to do so. I lead meetings and committees and projects populated by people who undeniably have expertise and skills that I don’t have. I have ended up developing ideas I am not qualified to develop, learning as I go and realizing along the way that there are a lot of people who know a whole lot more than I do.
There are two ways of dealing with imposters’ syndrome, other than paralysis or giving up. The first way is obvious—learn to be your own champion; develop some confidence-building mantras; talk back to those negative voices; keep an arsenal of the memories of times that you overcame challenges and succeeded. This is the strategy I use in running. There are always a million reasons why stopping seems more reasonable that continuing. I have had to learn how to keep putting one foot in front of the other, how to combat the wishing and the worrying with the embrace of the moment. Whatever happens next, right now I’m running.
The second way is less obvious. It’s less obvious and also more valuable. I have tried the “a leader leads” strategy of barrelling my way through my insecurities, looking and sounding as confident and knowledgeable as possible. I don’t know how successful I was in fooling anyone, but I do know it was hard to see the big picture from out there in front.
Instead, I’ve learned this alternative: lean into the negativity. Paradoxically, there is something enormously positive about those negative voices, as well as something true. The truth is that I am scared and vulnerable and don’t know everything and often don’t have a clue what I’m doing. Rather than denying that, talking myself out of it, or pretending things are otherwise,I can turn my own shortcomings into an asset.
If I am lacking knowledge, skills and expertise, then that means I need to make room for the gifts of others around the table. If I don’t know everything, then that means I have to listen. If I don’t have an arsenal of strategies and grand plans, then that means I have to be nimble and flexible and responsive in how plans—step by step, and with tons of conversation along the way—take shape. If there are things that I am called to do that fill me with fear and trepidation, then I need to rely on a grace and a strength that comes from beyond me. If I am attentive to the fact that I, on my own, am not enough, then I will never get trapped into thinking that I have to go it alone.
It’s not just that this leaning into negativity is potentially positive, it’s also very Christian. Jesus had a lot of time for sinners but was quick to condemn smugness. Jesus, and then in his stead the Holy Spirit, leaves the disciples with no option ever to rest on their laurels, continually challenging any entrenched thoughts of entitlement or privilege and making it clear that there is always someone other than you and your buddies who brings a fresh perspective and who will challenge and unsettle and bless.
Jesus is formed by Hebrew scriptures which, over their long arc through the history of the Jewish people, leave no applecart overturned. “You think you know this, but I tell you this,” is a through-line baked into who God chooses for what roles, into the prophets’ many calls to kings and commoners and everyone in between never to think that their position in God’s estimation was secured merely by lineage or titles, into the surprising and humble and quiet and subtle ways that God shows up. The people of God would need to be made and re-made in each successive generation, not by birthright, but by acts of mercy and a corporate offering that is most compelling in its humility rather than its domination.
I hesitate to make grand sweeping statements about how female leadership is different from male leadership. We are all people, and we are all unique. Creating the kind of welcoming conditions for women not only to be in leadership, but to flourish in doing so, expands the talent pool. And that’s a good thing. Women aren’t naturally more compassionate or nurturing or warm or humble. We don’t automatically change systemically and structurally because we put a woman in charge.
I do wonder, however, whether the relative newness of female leadership in so many sectors of society, as well as the way that women tend to be socialized, means that we are a little more prone to imposters’ syndrome and those negative voices than our male counterparts. I also wonder if leaning into that imposters’ syndrome, rather than fighting it, might be part of what could be our offering. Maybe the world doesn’t need more confidence, self-reliance and expertise. Maybe the world needs more collaboration, more listening, more flexibility, more humility. Maybe we don’t have to “fake it ‘til we make it.”Maybe the greatest thing I, as an insecure and unqualified woman, might bring to the table is an honesty about the things that I lack.